She had been waiting to go home for years now. She couldn’t wait to see again, the valleys of Punjab, the blackbucks roaming through the wheat fields, the cantonment in Dilli that she had been born in. She came back the way she had been carried away: through foot and on bullock carts, with descendants of the people who had packed their belongings in pots when they were ordered to move to Daulatabad in 1327.
The zubaan ke beej, the seeds of the language, were sown in the pahadi rastas of eleventh century Punjab, when Arabic and Persian met for the first time. She spent her infancy known as Ordu, after army camps. But she was also born in a bazaar, formed when traders simplified their languages to understand each other. She would expand and contract depending on who poured in during invasions. Though to be completely accurate, it was the Sufis of the north who were responsible for who she became. They were proficient in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, and adept at picking up other tongues, and as they made their way into the Deccan, it was in their mouths that the languages first mixed. Once in the Deccan, she absorbed herself into the landscape, and sprouted as Dakhini, or Dakkan ki zubaan. She was shaped by Braj Bhasha, and matured in laterite blocks, basalt basins, and dry tropical forests. For her, Urdu was the base, to be topped with Kannada, Telegu and Marathi words.
In the Deccan, she resided in teachings of the Sufis, Kadam Rao Padam Rao, and Mohammed Quli Qutb’s Shah’s poems. Masnavi or, couplets of poetry was created in her honour. She was spoken in markets, in homes, and even by kings. She was alive in the songs sung by women when they spun silk and ground millet at the stone- the charkha namas, the chakkinamas. They sung that as they turned the chakki, so they would find God. At the spinning wheel, they sung about how if their bodies were mere spinning wheels, their tongues were the rim of the spinning wheels, and their breath was the thread. When sung by married women, she became the suhagan nama. Accompanied by beats of the dholak, they used her to compare their mother-in-laws to hot chilli peppers.
But by the time she returned, three hundred years had passed since Alauddin Khilji’s conquest. There had been more wars, more structures erected and crushed. And as she blew around the spaces that she had once known, her euphoria began to ebb. The cantonment had been replaced by a tomb and a garden. She was no stranger to tombs in the middle of gardens, but this structure didn’t strike her as home. Oh, they were still domes and pillars and niches and lattice work. But suddenly she would encounter an arch where there shouldn’t be one. The material was smoother and polished, difficult to sink into. It frightened her because it was like meeting a doppelganger: someone physically the same, but differently nuanced, whose sole purpose was to haunt her. Even the elevation of the landscape was different. Instead of rising like a table, the ground was folding itself to prepare for a mountain range. And suddenly, there were white people who bore the smell of the sea, who spoke yet another tongue- a clipped speech that resided only in the mouth, instead of rolling out of the upper palate and throat.
She thought about all the things she had done to get back home. She had changed her name several times, each one a subtle shift in her identity. Because she passed through Gujarat, she was briefly known as Gujri, and as she approached Dilli, she became Dehlavi. Then they called her Hindawi – because she was like Hindi, but not exactly – courtesy of the tatsam Sanskrit that Telegu and Kannada had imparted to her. She was also referred to as Zaban Hindustani: the common man’s tongue. On the other hand, the Urdu that she had left behind had grown up to become Rekhta, a severely Persianised form, and polished beyond recognition. More suited than her by far to compose verses in. According to Rekhta, they barely shared syntax now; they had nothing else in common. Rekhta belonged to the likes of Amir Khusrau, would belong to Mirza Ghalib, while Dakhini was like a parent embarrassing her child by her coarseness.
Dakhini had thought the land would remain ba-dastoor; unaltered. That it would lie in wait to receive her. But the soil did not allow her to percolate anymore. Back in Dilli, no one wanted her. She had still held on to the Old Punjabi, the remnants of what happened when Arabic and Persian combined, but to the people of Dilli, she was a strange corruption. They forgot that she had once been Ordu; a grandmother to the language they now spoke. But they did treat her as if she was obsolete. As if she was already an artefact. Like the way the Homo sapiens would have treated the Neanderthals. The bagpipes to a violin. They thought she was earthy, crude and primitive. They had already begun to call her Qadim Urdu, old Urdu. And then the country split, causing her vocabulary to divide. They called it Diglossia, although for her, it was a personality disorder. Holes were wrenched out of her and transplanted somewhere else. Today, she is barely even considered a language, and relegated to be a dialect of Urdu, when it should be the other way around. She is the older one; the one who became stable enough for extraction, at a time when Dilli was so plagued by invasions that no language was able to form entirely.
Language is the invisible conquest. It is obtained without wanting, received without asking. Today, Dakhini is a lehja, or an accent. She resides in the ‘aan’; a suffix that indicates plural, in the nasalisation of the rains, in the aspiration of consonants, in the condensation of long vowels. In the ‘naako’ instead of ‘nahi’, in the ‘bolat’ instead of bolata, in the ‘ya’ suffix to indicate past tense- the dhundhaiya instead of dhunda. In the absence of idioms and proverbs that the Urdu of the north is a treasure trove in.
Therefore, it’s difficult to grasp her. She was born out of adaptation, and she cannot help but adapt, cannot help but slip into different forms to protect herself. To do what she could not in the north. Today, there are many different kinds of Dakhini spoken, depending on the region. There is the Hyderabadi-Dakhini, which influences Bidar- Dakhini, except Bidar-Dakhini contains an influence of Kannada. She is spoken in Bijapur, and, around the peripheries of Maharasthra, she has a strong influence of Marathi. She still resides in the Deccan, since her homecoming was never completed. Today, even the people who speak her do not know that they speak her, and with each passing year she seeps through the laterite, collecting in aquifers formed by slices of basalt. The way water collects in underground wells, waiting to be discovered. She hasn’t run dry; she just no longer spills into the landscape. But those that have deep roots can never be blown away, and so, she continues to spread over the South, adopting more and more words, broadening her reach, and enfolding more languages within.
Devki Pande is a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia University, with fellowships in writing and public policy. She works as an associate producer in the film industry in Mumbai. These views are personal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org